Rosie Wild, 17 September 2019
Black Power in Britain started in 1967, reached its apogee in 1971 and was in terminal decline by the mid 1970s. It was an expression of frustration, anger and – most importantly – resistance to the individual, institutional and state racism experienced by the postwar generation of black immigrants to Britain.The term “black” is used to denote people from Africa, the Caribbean and southern Asia.
Clearly inspired by the Black Power movement taking place at the same time in the United States, it borrowed heavily from its style and rhetoric. UK Black Power was not a carbon copy of its US counterpart, though; British groups talked a good fight and practiced self-defence, but they did not carry guns or engage in organised violence.
British Black Power groups were most active in London. Most groups had fewer than a hundred members, some even less. Outside the capital, most towns and cities with significant non-white populations had a Black Power group, but very little is known about their activities beyond the existence of a few newsletters.
Although the Black Power groups varied in organisational structure, they all carried out broadly similar activities and were Marxist of either Maoist or Trotskyite persuasion. Black Power groups’ ambitious programmes included regular meetings; pamphleteering and newspaper production; self-defence training; police monitoring; social events and cultural activities; supplementary schools for black children; political demonstrations; free breakfast programmes; community bookshops, advice centres and even housing projects. They supported anti-colonial struggles abroad, among which they included the Irish Republican cause.
Within London, the most significant organisations were the Universal Coloured Peoples Association (UCPA), founded in June 1967, which fractured and then regrouped as the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP) in July 1970; the Black Panther Movement (BPM) founded in April 1968, and its offshoot the Black Liberation Front (BLF), started at the beginning of 1971. Another important group, the Fasimbas, based in south east London, began life in the spring of 1970 and merged with the BLF in 1972.For more information about the Fasimbas, see former activist Winston Trew’s memoir Black for a Cause (Derbyshire, 2010).
Predating Black Power by two years, an organisation called the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS) was set up in 1965 by Trinidadian criminal and self-proclaimed revolutionary Michael X and Roy Sawh. Receiving an enormous amount of media and police attention, Michael X was for the most part not highly regarded in Black Power circles, where his reputation was of a self-serving crook, albeit one who could shake things up. While his political currency went up after he was sentenced to a year in prison in November 1967 for the new offence of inciting racial hatred, introduced as part of the 1965 Race Relations Act, Michael X was peripheral to the Black Power movement and RAAS cannot truly be considered a Black Power organisation.
There were several smaller London groups, like Notting Hill’s Black Eagles, led by Darcus Howe or the Universal Coloured People and Arab Association (UCPAA) started by Roy Sawh in September 1967, but these were fleeting operations with very limited influence and a handful of members. The Black People’s Alliance (BPA), led by Indian Workers Association leader Jagmohan Joshi and (very briefly) Roy Sawh attempted to bring different black and left-wing groups together to campaign and could muster impressive numbers for demonstrations. In January 1969, for example, hundreds of BPA supporters marched with white left-wing groups (and a handful of Special Branch officers in plain clothes) to protest against apartheid in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London.
Black Power and fellow traveller groups were spied on by Special Branch, and harassed through the police and the legal system.See chapter 4, ‘ in Wild, R, “Black Was The Colour of Our Fight”: Black Power in Britain 1955-1976, unpublished thesis, 2008, pp 163-210. Laws such as the recently introduced Section 6 of the 1965 Race Relations Act, which made it a criminal offence to ‘stir up’ racial hatred, were used to prosecute Black Power leaders such as Michael X, Roy Sawh and Ajoy Ghose for speeches they made.
In 1973, Tony Soares of the BLF was tried for incitement to murder, arson, bomb making and possessing firearms, after an edition of the BLF’s newspaper Grass Roots reprinted instructions on make a Molotov cocktail from an already available American newspaper The Black Panther. Soares, was well known to Special Branch. He had already spent most of 1969 in prison after being convicted of inciting people to riot and possess weapons on the basis of leaflets he was alleged to have been handing out at the 27 October 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Grosvenor Square.See A. Angelo, ‘”We All Became Black”: Tony Soares, African-American Internationalists, and Anti-imperialism’, in The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States, eds R. D. G. Kelley and S. Tuck, pp 97-100.
Most famously, in a 1971 trial that attracted huge publicity, nine activists who had taken part in a march protesting against police raids on black cafe and community hub, The Mangrove, in Notting Hill, London, were prosecuted for riot and affray. Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe and fellow member Darcus Howe opted to defend themselves and turned the trial into a public examination of the police’s treatment of the black community. Acquitted of all rioting charges by the jury, Jones-Lecointe and Howe were further vindicated in their strategy when the judge remarked that the trial had, ‘regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred’ on the part of the Metropolitan Police as well as the Black Power protestors.See R. Bunce and P. Field, ‘Mangrove Nine: the court challenge against police racism in Notting Hill‘, accessed 14/4/19.
The Mangrove Nine trial was the high water mark of Black Power organising, taking place as it did in the same year as the explicitly racist 1971 Immigration Act that prompted an upsurge of political protest among Britain’s black citizens. By the middle of the 1970s, however, the state’s repressive response to the threat it perceived from Black Power had – combined with the movement’s internal tensions – sent it into steep decline.
In addition, from 1975 the government offered a juicy carrot in the form of generous funding to black community groups, as long as they worked within guidelines set by their local authorities. The Urban Programme started in 1968 to give additional funds to areas with high levels of immigration to mitigate deprivation. The 1975 tranche of funding was aimed specifically at black self-help groups, many of which were run by or had evolved from Black Power organisations. This method of divorcing the political aims of radical black organisations from their social welfare activities proved to be extremely successful.
Although a few groups that had started life as part of the Black Power movement continued to exist into the 1980s and 1990s, after the mid-1970s they no longer found Black Power a useful concept around which to organise. The concept of blackness as a political identity that encompassed people of both African and Asian descent became increasingly fragile. The Black Panther Movement changed its name to the Black Workers Movement in 1973 to reflect its focus on class oppression. In the same year, the BUFP dropped the Black Power mantra ‘Power To The People’ from its newspaper’s masthead. The BLF continued, but its focus on cultural nationalism caused the membership to dwindle as Asians felt increasingly unwelcome. After a last burst of publicity in September 1975, when three armed men claiming to be affiliated with the BLF took staff and diners at the Spaghetti House restaurant in Knightsbridge hostage after a botched robbery, the organisation shrank into obscurity.See 1975: London’s Spaghetti House siege ends, On this day, BBC News, no date, accessed 8/8/2019.
Material for this article is taken from R Wild, ‘Black was the Colour of Our Fight: Black Power in Britain 1955-1976′, PhD dissertation (2008).
- Anne-Marie Angelo, ‘We All Became Black’: Tony Soares, African-American Internationalists, and Anti-imperialism, 2015.
- Pete Brook, When cops raided a hip 1970s London cafe, Britain’s Black Power movement rose up The Mangrove Nine fought the law — and the law did not win, 5 February 2018. (lots of pictures!)
- Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Obi B. Egbuna, C. L. R. James and the Birth of Black Power in Britain: Black Radicalism in Britain 1967–72 , Twentieth Century British History, September 2011. Volume 22, Issue 3, 1, Pages 391–414.
- Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: a political biography, Bloomsbury 2015.
- Winston N. Trew, Black for a Cause… Not Just Because…: The case of the ‘Oval 4’ and the story it tells of Black Power in 1970s Britain, 2015. Also see Black for a Cause.
- Ashley John-Baptiste, The Mangrove Nine. Echoes of black lives matter from 50 years ago, BBC News, 14 August 2020. (great footage!)
- mudlark121, 42. Independent radical black politics: looking at the BUFP & BLF, Woodsmokeblog, 25 October 2017.
- Past Tense blog, Today in London anti-racist history: demo protesting police raids on Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant, 1970, 9 August 2018.
- The Young Historians Project exhibition and film about the BLF.
TNA blog series:
- Rowena Hillel and Vicky Iglikowski, Rights, resistance and racism: the story of the Mangrove Nine, 21 October 2015.
- Vicky Iglikowski and Rowena Hillel, Let’s talk about the Mangrove Nine, The National Archives blog, 11 January 2016.
- Vicky Iglikowski and Rowena Hillel, An afternoon with the Mangrove Nine, The National Archives blog, 1 August 2016.
- The Mangrove Nine, Selection of Mangrove Nine images, annex to the TNA blog series, The National Archives Flickr.
|↑1||The term “black” is used to denote people from Africa, the Caribbean and southern Asia.|
|↑2||For more information about the Fasimbas, see former activist Winston Trew’s memoir Black for a Cause (Derbyshire, 2010).|
|↑3||See chapter 4, ‘ in Wild, R, “Black Was The Colour of Our Fight”: Black Power in Britain 1955-1976, unpublished thesis, 2008, pp 163-210.|
|↑4||See A. Angelo, ‘”We All Became Black”: Tony Soares, African-American Internationalists, and Anti-imperialism’, in The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States, eds R. D. G. Kelley and S. Tuck, pp 97-100.|
|↑5||See R. Bunce and P. Field, ‘Mangrove Nine: the court challenge against police racism in Notting Hill‘, accessed 14/4/19.|
|↑6||See 1975: London’s Spaghetti House siege ends, On this day, BBC News, no date, accessed 8/8/2019.|